NEARLY EVERY RELIGION AND EVERY PEOPLE IN HISTORY HAVE HAD A TRADITION OR TEACHING ABOUT HELL. Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, the Chinese, the Babylonians, the Persians (both ancient Zoroastrians and modern Iranian Muslims). For the ancient Greeks the underworld of Hades—named after the god who ruled it—was the general abode of the dead, neither a place of punishment nor of pleasure, just a shadowy twilight existence. This underworld had an underworld, Tartarus, a dungeon-abyss for the wicked and those who had crossed the gods.
THE JEWISH TRADITION concerning the punishment of the wicked dead had become by the first century AD focused on a singular image: gehenna. “Gehenna” was the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic gēhinnām, which goes back to the original Hebrew gê hinnōm: “Valley of Hinnom”. This is an actual valley—the Valley of Ben (the son of) Hinnom, on the southern edge of the city of Jerusalem. A site in the valley, Topheth, was used by apostate ancient Israelites to worship the Canaanite gods Baal and Molech, even to the point of sacrificing children in fire during the reigns of the kings, Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). Tophet was desecrated around 640 BC by King Josiah, who ended child sacrifice and stopped the worship of the Canaanite gods (2 Kings 23:10). Only a few decades later, the prophet Jeremiah was already using the memory and images of Topheth and the Valley of Ben Hinnom as metaphors for the judgement of God and the punishment of the wicked (Jeremiah 7:32-34; 19:1-9).
Both gehenna and hadēs are used in the New Testament to designate and depict death and its aftermath. Modern English translations typically translate gehenna as “Hell”, a venerable term going back to the Old English “hel” or “helle”. Jesus warns unrepentant sinners, self-righteous religious leaders, those who lead believers astray, and people who cherish lust, malice, or murder in their hearts that the road they are traveling on leads to gehenna (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43,45, 47; Luke 12:5) and everyone who heard him would be familiar with the traditional imagery these warnings brought to mind. This is the only description of gehenna / Hell that Jesus gives: gehenna is “where the fire never goes out” and “where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ ” (Mark 9:43, 48). In the latter verse Jesus is quoting Isaiah 66:24, where the prophet is contrasting the blessed experience of those who inhabit the “new heavens and the new earth” and the awful fate of those who have rejected God.
In most modern English New Testaments the Greek word αδης (hadēs) is either just transliterated Hades or translated as the “grave” or the “depths”. Behind the Greek term is the Hebrew and Aramaic word sheol. In the Old Testament, sheol was the general “destination” of all the dead; all go to “the grave” when they die. There is one exception to the translative equation of hadēs / sheol with “the grave”. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 – 31), some English versions (such as the New International Version) translate hadēs as Hell, because of the imagery of the rich man’s suffering after death: “In hell [hadēs], where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’ ” (Luke 19:22 – 24, NIV). By the time of Jesus, the meaning of hadēs / sheol had grown to encompass both the broad concept of “the grave” and the narrower view of a place of punishment after death. Distinguishing between the two meanings is a matter of understanding the context.
The underworld to the Greek underworld of Hades, Tartarus, is also used in the New Testament one time, by the apostle Peter: “God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment” (2 Peter. 2:4). Most English versions translate Tartarus here as Hell. Wherever the fallen angels are “held” and whatever their experience—and this is not detailed or specific—it seems not to be their final destination.
A final set of images for Hell are the references to the “lake of fire” and “burning sulfur” in the visions of the apostle John in the book of Revelation: “If anyone worships the beast and his image . . . He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image” (Revelation 14:10-11); “The two of them [the beast and the false prophet] were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Revelation 19:20); “the devil was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10); “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14-15); “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
The background for this volcanic imagery of God’s wrath in fire and “brimstone” (sulfur) is drawn from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recorded in Genesis (Genesis 19:24-29). The likely location of these two ancient cities was near the lower end of the Dead Sea. This area, in what is now called the Dead Sea Rift or Transform, was and is geologically active. Sodom and Gomorrah were quite literally destroyed by fire and brimstone in some type of volcanic event. Their ruin became a continuing symbol for God’s judgment and the punishment of the wicked (see Deuteronomy 29:23; Matthew 10:15; Luke 17:26-29; 2 Peter 2:6). In John’s vision the imagery of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is expanded to embrace the fate of all those who reject God and embrace evil. That the imagery of this fate as it is depicted in the book of Revelation is not literal does not detract from its serious and sober reality. Quite the contrary, the imagery emphasizes and heightens the tragic consequences of deliberately and steadfastly choosing to reject God’s love and mercy.
THESE, THEN, ARE THE “WORD PICTURES” IN THE BIBLE DESCRIBING HELL:
Darkness Gloom Dungeons Worms Fire Smoke Sulfur
What do these Biblical images and their background have to say about the actual “geography” or “climate” of Hell? Not much, really. While the separate images do not contradict one another directly, they simply do not add up to a real “physical” description of Hell. The images are not intended to be taken literally. What is their purpose, then? To shock us? Yes, and more. The first hearers and readers of these descriptions would have known Hades , Sheol, Gehenna, Tartarus, Sodom and Gomorrah. The images would have been disturbing, as they are now to us, as they were always intended to be. The reality they point to—and it is tragically real—is the negation of God’s kingdom and in contrast to the infinite delight, radiance, beauty, and peace of the Kingdom. Hell, whatever and wherever it is in itself, by contrast is all darkness, sorrow, chaos, and conflict. It is as the world, without the hope of truth, goodness, and beauty; the “world”—not the Earth or humanity as a whole—set adrift to its own devices by its own demand. It is Milton’s Satanic declaration, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in heaven” transmuted to “Better to drift endlessly in a darkness of our own making, than abide in everlasting radiance that is an unearned gift.”
The Biblical description of Hell is not about location, landscape, or architecture. It is intended to evoke in us the sensibility—the experience—of separation, exclusion, enclosure, loss, and anguish. They are what the Bible talks about when it talks about damnation. Next post, I’ll try to unwrap what that means.
Next Time: Hellfire and Damnation, Part 2, continued: Hell Is Real, This I Know, For the Bible Tells Me So